Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his calls with the Russian ambassador in late 2016. PHOTO: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
More Than a Dozen Obama Officials Requested ‘Unmasking’ That Identified Michael Flynn in Intelligence Reports
| le 14 May 2020
The list includes then-Vice President Joe Biden and former CIA Director John Brennan; the requests came after Russian interference in U.S. election
By Aruna Viswanatha
and Dustin Volz – The Wall Street Journal
The National Security Agency received and approved requests on behalf of more than three dozen Obama administration officials, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, to “unmask” a U.S. citizen mentioned in classified foreign intelligence reports during the presidential transition, revealing the identity of Michael Flynn.
The requests were made between President Trump’s November 2016 election and inauguration in January 2017, according to a memo declassified by Mr. Trump’s new acting director of national intelligence and made public Wednesday by two Republican senators.
Mr. Flynn resigned weeks into his tenure as Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser over his conflicting statements about his contacts with Russian officials before the inauguration and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those talks. The Justice Department has moved to drop the charge.
Procedures for unmasking are designed under the law that governs the covert surveillance of foreigners to allow officials to better understand classified intelligence reports where U.S. citizens’ names are typically redacted to protect their identity.
All those who requested the reports were authorized to receive them, according to information contained in a memo from NSA Director Paul Nakasone dated May 4. The unmasking requests were approved through the NSA’s regular process, which includes a review of the justification for the request, the memo said. The release did not make clear what specific conversations were unmasked or identify the foreigners with whom Mr. Flynn had spoken.
In addition to Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee against Mr. Trump in November, the officials listed as making the requests for Mr. Flynn’s identity included then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, then-Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, and President Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough, as well as a range of other senior and lower-ranking officials across several government departments.
Republican supporters of Mr. Flynn, who was an early supporter of Mr. Trump’s campaign, have said his career was ruined through leaks of classified information about his communication with the Russian ambassador in Washington at the end of 2016, when the Obama administration was imposing sanctions on Moscow for interfering in the U.S. election.
The Trump campaign accused Mr. Biden of improperly using the unmasking process to target Mr. Flynn, although none of the officials, including Mr. Biden, would have known Mr. Flynn’s identity until after receiving the unmasked reports from the NSA.
“Americans have a right to know the depth of Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax,” Brad Parscale, the campaign manager of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, said in a statement.
Many Democrats and former intelligence officials who served under presidents of both parties said the scrutiny of foreign intercepts during the transition—and Mr. Flynn’s role in those months—were warranted given that intelligence officials had already issued warnings about Russia’s election interference and possible ties between Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and Moscow.
“These documents simply indicate the breadth and depth of concern across the American government—including among career officials—over intelligence reports of Michael Flynn’s attempts to undermine ongoing American national security policy through discussions with Russian officials or other foreign representatives,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign.
Ms. Power didn’t respond to a request for comment. Through a spokesman, Mr. Brennan declined to comment. Mr. McDonough didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Biden’s request to see an unmasked intercept occurred on Jan. 12, 2017, eight days before he left office.
Unmasking U.S. identities in intelligence reports occurs thousands of times annually, according to statistics maintained by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The rate of unmasking has increased during the Trump administration, surging in 2018 by 75% over the previous year, according to statistics released by the intelligence community.
“You can’t do your job without it,” said Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA during the Obama administration and host of the “Intelligence Matters” podcast, who added that he used to make unmasking requests several times a month.
Mr. Morell said that Obama administration officials in several agencies would have had justified national-security reasons to unmask Mr. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, including ensuring that it wasn’t someone from within the administration who was undermining President Obama’s decision on the sanctions.
“What this indicates is he was in communication with people who were foreign intelligence targets,” said April Doss, a former NSA lawyer under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama who served as a Democratic counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Ms. Doss said presidential transitions are sensitive counterintelligence periods because foreign adversaries are seeking to gain any possible influence with people who might hold power in an incoming administration.
The memo was released by GOP Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The information was declassified last week by Richard Grenell, acting director of national intelligence.
Mr. Flynn resigned within weeks of Mr. Trump’s inauguration after reports he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about phone calls with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, which were first reported in an Opinion column in the Washington Post dated Jan. 12, 2017. His lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The memo doesn’t explain the reasons for the unmasking requests, most of which were two weeks before a phone call in late December between Mr. Flynn and Russia’s ambassador, which later became the episode that triggered his resignation. Intelligence about Mr. Flynn’s call with Mr. Kislyak was provided by the FBI, not the NSA, and the FBI chose to unmask Mr. Flynn’s name proactively as it briefed a small group of senior officials, including Messrs. Obama and Biden, according to congressional testimony from former FBI Director James Comey.
The earliest request cited in the memo was from Ms. Power, on Nov. 30, 2016. Many of the requests came between Dec. 14 and Dec. 16.
Often incoming officials don’t realize the true identity or motives of a foreigner they are communicating with, and they or the president may need to be warned about the counterintelligence risks, Ms. Doss said.
Mr. Obama had warned Mr. Trump against hiring Mr. Flynn as national security adviser, The Wall Street Journal has reported, citing Mr. Flynn’s service as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 2014, Mr. Obama, a Democrat, fired the then-lieutenant general from that senior Pentagon post.
In addition to political figures like Mr. Biden and Ms. Power, unmasking requests were made by lower-level Treasury Department officials and U.S. ambassadors, as well as Mr. Comey. Mr. Comey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his calls with the Russian ambassador, admitting he had misled the agents about whether he had asked Russia to moderate its response to sanctions levied by former President Obama in his last days in office. As part of his plea agreement, Mr. Flynn admitted to lying about other calls with foreign diplomats, including about a United Nations Security Council resolution vote in late December 2016.
Mr. Flynn cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Earlier this year, he asked to withdraw his guilty plea, and he argued he had been set up by the FBI and entrapped by agents.
Last week, the Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that former FBI officials improperly sought to interview Mr. Flynn about his Russian interactions. The federal judge in the case appointed an outside lawyer to argue against that dismissal of charges.
In his memo, Mr. Nakasone said 16 authorized individuals had made unmasking requests on behalf of more than three dozen senior officials. The NSA wasn’t able to confirm whether all of the officials saw the unmasked information, the memo said.